The news that Broadway producer Rocco Landesman has been nominated to become the next chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts brought to mind Landesman’s history in off-Loop theater. Back in 1994, Landesman’s Jujamcyn Theaters operation joined forces with erstwhile Chicago producer Bob Perkins to acquire the Royal George Theatre across the street from Steppenwolf. As then-Reader columnist Lewis Lazare reported, Landesman and Perkins envisioned the Royal George as “a busy venue for new work, commercial revivals, and the more challenging Broadway transfers.” The new regime made a splash with the Chicago premiere of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. (Asked by the New York Times to comment on Landesman’s nomination, Kushner proclaimed, “‘It’s potentially the best news the arts community in the United States has had since the birth of Walt Whitman.'”)
Later, the Royal George hosted a tryout of Baby That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Songs of Leiber and Stoller (which eventually became the Broadway hit Smokey Joe’s Cafe), as well as a long-running cabaret staging of the musical revue Forever Plaid. But financial failures, including the fluffy comedy I Hate Hamlet and the stark drama Mrs. Klein–which bombed despite the presence of legendary actress Uta Hagen–eventually prompted Landesman to end the partnership. He found maintaining a commercial theater like the Royal George too daunting in a city dominated by the very constituency he’ll be expected to represent at the NEA: nonprofits.
Landesman’s impressive Broadway credentials over the last 25 years range from the musicals Into the Woods, City of Angels, Jelly’s Last Jam, Jersey Boys, Caroline, or Change, and The Producers to most of August Wilson’s dramas and the current New York transfer of Robert Falls’s recent Goodman Theatre staging of Desire Under the Elms. According to the Times, Landesman is expected to resign from his position at Jujamcyn if his nomination is approved by Congress, but to retain his ownership stake.